The term “quiet loner” has been associated with self-destructive, socially-aberrant and potentially dangerous behavior since we had social groups. Dr Fromm-Reichmann, way ahead of her time, insisted that loneliness lay at the core of most mental conditions and now, we know, it also affects a great many physical ones too.
When the neurochemistry of social isolation shows us just how loneliness can adversely rewire the brain the question has to be why, in the age of social media connectivity are we still feeling lonely? The issue is more than a seemingly facile one, particularly if we accept that loneliness is a subjective internal condition as opposed to an objective external one.
Social media has been so integrated in our lives that its impact on our psychology has been studied extensively and it’s not always good news. Part of the reason lies in what psychologists call “context collapse”. The moment when all of our different facets get mashed together with everyone else’s helps create a sense of confusion that on certain social media platforms, Facebook in particular, appeals to the worst aspects of our behavior.
Sherry Turkle reports how this “connected but alone” feeling is something we have yet to socially understand because social media is still relatively new to us. But loneliness and social isolation are not social media issues. Social media may highlight them, as it does with most other elements of the human condition, but they go much deeper and have far greater effects than Facebook likes and Twitter reshares.
Loneliness may be lethal to us. We truly are hardwired to connect, we are made to be social and our complex brains (and bodies) require it in order to establish an acceptable operational baseline. When isolation starts with killing our dreams we know that we are on the path to self-destruction if we let it persist. Technology which is so easily demonize din this context, can also be the cure we seek.
Seeking introspection, taking time out to be alone is not something that should be shunned. The power of solitude to help us figure out who to be has been well documented and it is even beneficial to our mood. The difference here is that solitude and introspection are self-initiated and sought. They are necessary pauses for self-assessment and the solidification of values learnt and goals acquired. Loneliness on the other hand, even as a subjective experience, is something unwelcome and unwanted.
Lone wolf personalities who play on the image of a “strong, independent predator” type, totally overlook that the animal they base this impression on is a “lone wolf” out of circumstances rather than choice and then only for a relatively short time.
There is a deeper struggle going on within us. Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not it is the underpinning of our sense of self and agency that self possesses and it is the result of our cultural and historical heritage which has shaped us. We see ourselves as somehow discreet instead of continuous, a reflection of our conditioned and, to some degree, intuitive belief of how nature operates.
The result is that we stigmatize loneliness as somehow being evidence of a ‘deficiency’ verging on the pathological, when in fact it is a condition that can be addressed through acknowledgement and acceptance. A condition which, in just the right dosage, might even be beneficial to us.
Even writing, one of the most solitary professions, can become inherently less lonely and more rewarding using the right mix of social media connectivity and isolation to make the magic happen.
The point to all of this is one we’ve encountered in this column before. There is no activity we can engage in that an uncontrolled excess of it will somehow give us massive benefits. Everything we do, everything we become and everything that includes our technology and affects our behavior has to be part of a delicate balance; arrived at after personal experimentation and trial and error. We can become each other’s best friends and the safety net we need but only if we also choose to engage the best side of us.
The truth is that alone we all fail eventually. Alone we all falter. Alone we are weak. Stronger together holds as true when Caesar explained as when Aesop popularized it. Nothing’s changed in the intervening years.
So here we are. I have consciously chosen to be with you today. Getting up early after a very late night spent working on a writing project and feeling, on a Sunday, tired, groggy and in need of taking coffee intravenously. At the same time I feel part of you all. Your attention, ideas, thoughts and engagement take me outside the confines of my skull and make me feel that in this wacky, sometimes confusing and occasionally threatening world we live in, there are brilliant sparks of intellect, people who think and feel and act; who are part of a greater constellation that breathes and lives and while I may never know you all, you are nonetheless part of my universe and I never truly feel alone.
I hope you are, right now, adequately escorting this deep intellectual dive with coffee and donuts, croissants and cookies and maybe the odd slice of chocolate cake. Have an awesome Sunday wherever you are.